Srinagar/Pulwama: Santosh Baithe is busy rubbing sandpaper on the wall of an under-construction mosque in Abiguzar area of Lal Chowk in Srinagar. Looking to get the work done quickly, he instructs a mason, Amit Kumar, to prepare the mortar mix for application.
“We need to finish this wall today and start with the dome tomorrow,” he tells ThePrint as he gestures to his colleagues to speed up.
Baithe is a construction worker from Baliya village in Bihar’s West Champaran district. He has been working for the past month, along with eight others from the same native place, to complete the mosque as fast as possible before the peak of winter.
The project had come to a halt briefly last month when Baithe and his colleagues had to stop for a few days after 11 civilians, including migrant labourers and Kashmiris, were gunned down by militants in the span of a few days.
The fear of getting shot drove many workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand — who work at construction sites, in the timber industry, on the fields and fruit orchards, as embroiderers, barbers and hawkers, forming an integral part of Kashmir’s economy — out of the Valley.
Industrial, agricultural and construction work thus ground to a halt in many parts of the Valley.
However, within a few weeks, many returned with an assurance from their employers and the administration over safety. Some who were planning to leave dropped the idea. Meanwhile, many of those who left are likely to return in February, after the harsh winter ebbs.
Migrant labourers in Kashmir work in the Valley from mid-February to mid-December. Most of them leave for home at the end of the season as it starts to snow and units across industries shut down.
‘They tell us that they will return’
Baithe said he has been inundated with calls from his village as many labourers who left in view of the safety threat now wish to return. Some of them are asking their employers to get their flight tickets booked.
“Many people who were scared left for the village. Many even went to Jammu in search of some work there. Now, we get frequent calls to ask if they should return,” Baithe added. “Many who went to Jammu have come back, many who went back home have also returned because there is no source of income back home,” he said.
According to Baithe, their decision to stay back “has given confidence to others”. “The ones who have not yet returned will come back in February because all work anyway will come to a halt in the next 10-15 days,” he said.
In Pulwama’s Litter, work at the local furniture-making unit has resumed after the shock left behind by the death of a carpenter, Sageer Ahmed, who was shot dead nearby on 16 October.
Mangol Kisku, a furniture maker from West Bengal who came to Kashmir a year ago and works at a plywood factory in Pulwama, said he stayed back to “assess the situation” first. “This is Kashmir, all this keeps happening. We stopped stepping out of our homes but after a few days, everything was back to normal. My friends have returned, more will come after the winter,” he added.
MK Chowk, also known as Labour Chowk in downtown Srinagar, is abuzz with activity in early mornings these days even as the temperature dips as low as 3 degrees Celsius.
All the migrant labourers seeking work assemble here in the morning to be approached by employers directly. Many of them take buses to work from this chowk.
Work has resumed, panic has settled down, industry says
According to Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Sheikh Ashiq, the panic has settled down now. Whenever such episodes of violence occur, there is migration but things fall in place soon after, he said.
“Now, when these civilian killings happened, there was panic and some of these migrant labourers started to leave. But it settled soon after the employers ensured that they would take care of their accommodation, safety and food,” Ashiq added.
“The situation is much better. The work in most sectors has resumed. Many people who left are also ready to return but they would do that only in February because in winter all of these migrant labourers go back home. Not many industries function in winters. The work will now resume in mid-February,” he added.
New Kashmir Fruit Association president Bashir Ahmad said work resumed soon after the labourers were assured of their safety.
“Everyone has to earn their livelihood. Where will they go? They have been working here for years. Many of them stayed back after assurances from us, but those who left also want to return. Many even came back and the rest will come back after the winter,” he added.
‘Stayed because of people, pay’
Many workers at construction sites, weaving and embroidery units, shops and even hawkers thank their employers and other local residents for their assurances and support. They add that they make more in the Valley than what they would at other places.
“In October, the situation was bad. But people here are cooperative and helpful. Since the administration is supportive and the money that we get paid here is very good, we are happy we stayed back and all our friends who left are saying that they will return in the next season,” said Amit Prasad, a construction worker from West Champaran. “It was just those few days when they left. After that no one went.”
Amit Kumar, who is from Baliya, said his employer even offered to arrange for a room for him to stay.
“The people are very nice. They feed and protect us. Since the local residents support us, we will not go back. Our employer, in fact, told us that we do not have to go out of the house,” he said. “We should not venture out in the evening and that everything will be made available to us.”
Rama Kant, another construction labourer from West Champaran, was all packed up to leave before local police convinced him to stay on. He said he himself called up the area station house officer to “consult him”.
“After those killings, I had decided to leave. I know many people here. I called the administration, the police here, and they told me to not take tension,” he added. “They assured me that if you feel scared, come live with us. After those assurances me and my friends decided to stay.”
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.